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Ukraine's difficult decisions before November

Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies and former senior British diplomat.

13 May 2024

Visiting Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey underscores the need for Ukraine to adapt its military strategies and prepare for changing political landscapes, particularly in light of the upcoming US presidential election and potential shifts in European policies.

This article was published in The Scotsman under the title Why Ukraine should go on the defensive against Russia and think about guerrilla tactics on 12 May 2024. 

November 2024 will be an important month for Ukraine. It not only heralds the start of winter when fighting becomes much harder but will also see the United States Presidential election. Between now and November Ukraine must use its resources in the most effective manner to position itself for the new political realities it will face in the early months of 2025.

It was a huge relief when, on 21st April, the United States House of Representatives finally approved the Ukraine support bill worth 60.8 billion US dollars. Once endorsed by the Senate and the President, missiles and ammunition started flowing down the long logistics chain to the east of Ukraine where Russian troops have been making steady progress over recent months.

The generosity of the US and the importance of the aid makes it almost seem churlish to warn the Ukrainians of the drawbacks:

Given the considerable time and effort to get this bill through Congress it is quite probably the last aid of such magnitude, irrespective of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden gets elected as President in November. Republican Party sentiment is hardening against ‘foreign wars’ and is increasingly being linked to migration across the southern border from Mexico.

Although there has been some effort from Europe, notably the Czech-inspired plan to collect 155mm shells from around the world, it would be prudent to assume that ammunition stocks are not going to be replaced in sufficient volume to continue the war deep into 2025. Several countries have come forward to finance the deal. Meanwhile German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is still resolutely opposed to sending the Taurus missile to Ukraine.

Over the winter of 2024/2025 there are likely to be more insistent calls for peace negotiations. The now-famous lack of Western strategic patience may re-emerge as governments struggle to bring inflation down for their restive populations.

One can forgive Ukraine for wondering at the causes of European ambivalence towards Russia. President Emmanuel Macron is talking tough and even suggesting that French troops might have to be sent to Ukraine if Russia breaks through Ukraine’s defensive lines. Some observers in France have ascribed Macron’s sudden hawkish tone to recent French setbacks in the Sahel. It is true that Europe is beginning to realise the seriousness of a possible Russian victory in Ukraine but, for most countries, this has not yet translated into decisive changes in policy.

This European lack of decisiveness is demonstrated by its apparent timidity towards the confiscation of Russian financial assets currently frozen overseas. The $300 billion US dollars will be essential (although not sufficient) for the reconstruction of Ukraine. One of the conclusions to emerge from a Chatham House conference on the issue on 2nd May was that France and Germany are concerned about the legal implications but also Russian retaliation against their companies still operating in Russia.

This leads to the question of why German and French companies are still in Russia. It is looking increasingly unlikely that the seizure (or ‘repurposing’) of these assets will be decided at the G7 summit in Italy in June. If Europe cannot agree to take this one relatively simple risk Ukraine would be wise to assume that more courageous future support will not be forthcoming.

Working on the assumption that both US and European political appetite is waning, Ukraine should be thinking about rationing its use of available munitions and working towards the best possible outcome by the onset of winter in November. Some potential conclusions would be;

It would be mistaken, to try and fight an offensive war against the Russians as happened for much of 2023. A defensive war should inflict greater losses on the Russians with the remote possibility that their morale could break under the strain.

As the smaller country with fewer human resources Ukraine should look for asymmetric advantage. This is what it did so successfully north of Kyiv in the early months of the war. The use of thousands of drones each month has been remarkably successful and the feedback loop between operators in the field and the assembly plants is a model of effectiveness (from which Western armed forces could learn).

Their use of long-range missiles, such as Storm Shadow, particularly against Black Sea fleet targets in Crimea was particularly successful in 2023. This has enabled Ukraine to keep its export shipping routes open. This objective (rather than the utopian one of recapturing the peninsula) should be retained.

It may not be too early to prepare for a possible wider Russian success in future. A ‘stay-behind’ network which could mount a guerrilla war against an occupying army takes time to organise. Arms and explosives need to be hidden, communications devices procured and prepared and civilians trained in irregular warfare. Ukraine is a huge country and a nightmare to occupy, especially in winter.

There is no sign that Russia is yet willing to talk peace and any negotiated deal would be a disaster for Ukraine with no chance of reclaiming Crimea and the Donbas or obtaining reparations and war crimes convictions.

There is also no clarity about whether Ukraine would be granted NATO membership following the end of the war. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken continues to hold out the prospect. The NATO 75th anniversary summit in Washington in early July will provide an opportunity for introducing more certainty.

During 2024 Ukraine would be wiser to take its own decisions and be wary of allies with their own distinct motivations and priorities.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Visiting Professor

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